Houston Chronicle: Hope fading for return of boys taken by cult

From XFamily - Children of God

Hope fading for return of boys taken by cult

Houston Chronicle/1985-09-02

By Evan Moore

A little more hope died for Gene Nastos today.

Since Sept. 1, 1980, when two of her grandchildren were kidnapped and taken to live in the bizarre sexual climate of the Children of God, there's been frustration, desperation, anger and resolve, but little hope.

Today the federal statute of limitations applies to the 5-year-old kidnapping, and Nastos's chances of seeing Christopher Joseph Pickus, 11, and Shaqued Nathan Pickus, 13, has faded even more.

It's been a case of too little concern too late. Nastos, her daughter, her lawyers, a private investigator who worked on the case and Honolulu police detective Bill Johnson agree: Police reacted too slowly and federal authorities too weakly - and two children may be lost to a life of incest and prostitution because of it.

The story began in 1969, when Nastos's daughter, Candy, was a 19-year-old University of Texas freshman, a Lake Houston girl experiencing her first tastes of anti-war sentiment, peace marches, love, long dresses and marijuana.

Then, she met the Children of God.

The Children of God - now known as the Family of Love, or The Family - was the creation of David Brandt Berg, a self-styled prophet of doom who found a ready band of zealous, teen-aged followers in Southern California in the late 1960s.

Berg adopted the biblical name "Moses David," began heralding the coming of Armageddon - an event he forecast for 1993 - and had his followers clad in red sack-cloth and ashes, hung with yokes like oxen and chanting "Woe! Woe!" on the street corners of Huntington Beach.

But he also stressed a pristine spirit, a self-sufficient, familial life and an emotional haven from drugs, sex and violence - all provided at the Texas Soul Clinic, a commune near Mingus, Texas.

"What they offered," said Candy, "was communal life on 200 acres, a truly religious environment - I mean we had Bible studies several times daily - and peace and a purpose and what I thought was love."

There, she met and married Brian Edward Pickus. Shaqued and Christopher were born soon after and the four lived happily in the austere, religious confines of Berg's family.

In 1974, however, things began to change. Berg published a letter for his flock titled "Beauty and the Beast." "We have shown the world every other kind of love," he wrote. "Now we're going to go as far as giving them other forms of physical love, even sexual love, to minister to one of their finest and greatest needs."

Berg's proposal was for religious conversion through prostitution, a process he calls "Flirty Fishing," and its practitioners, "Happy Hookers for Jesus." Women members were told to discard their sack-cloth and ashes, don the skimpiest things they could find and begin haunting the bars, trying to entice "fishes" for Berg, the "fisherman." "I can't explain what happened," said Candy. "It was like there was some underlying thing that was wrong all along, but I hadn't seen it - until they wanted me to do that."

Berg went a step further. He advocated incest, sex between children and sex between adults and children. In-house newsletters, published by Berg and distributed to members, began to include graphic photographs of the acts, accompanied by jocular captions.

In 1976, Candy left the fold. She and Pickus had four children - a girl and a boy had been added. She kept the infants, but Shaqued and Christopher remained with their father.

"That's when I decided to lure Brian," said Nastos. "I had Candy write him a letter, telling him she had finally made it big and was making a lot of money in Hawaii and wanted to see him and the boys.

"I know how they (the Children) react to money and I knew he'd be there."

Her daughter had previously filed for divorce and had obtained a court order giving her custody of the two older boys. When Pickus arrived in late August, Candy took the children. However, Pickus had visitation rights.

When he arrived at Candy's home Sept. 1, he was not alone. Outside were Angelo Frudakis, four hired thugs and about 20 members of the Children of God.

Frudakis, the boyfriend of Pickus's mother, Phyllis Gottwalt of Long Beach, Calif., and his four cohorts broke down the door of the home, severely beat Nastos's daughter and kidnapped the two boys.

"I was 15 miles away when Candy called me," said Nastos.

Candy called police, but when they learned that the father had abducted the children, they refused to pursue him. "The officers viewed the whole thing as just another domestic argument," said Johnson, a detective in the Honolulu Police Central Intelligence Division. "Of course, they handle a number of those situations on a daily basis and this seemed like just another one to them, although it wasn't. It could have been handled better, but it wasn't."

Nastos and her daughter said officers refused repeatedly to pursue Pickus and told her she would have to seek charges through the district attorney's office.

"But this was on the weekend," she said. "Monday was Labor Day and we couldn't see anyone until Tuesday. By the time we did, it was too late. Brian had gotten the boys to California."

Johnson was assigned to the case Sept. 4.

"I was convinced it was a federal case from day one," he said. "There'd been a conspiracy. People had been paid to do this. There was interstate flight, but I couldn't convince anyone either.

"I finally succeeded in getting him charged with something less than the greatest burglary case in the world and there's a contempt warrant out on him for taking the kids, but that was about it."

Meanwhile, Pickus and the children were staying with his mother in California. Within two weeks, he had obtained fraudulent passports for the boys and taken them to Spain.

Pickus has also been charged with the federal offense of unlawful flight to avoid prosecution and a "red alert" has been placed on him with Interpol.

If he attempts to return to this country, he would be arrested but could not be extradited from another country on the unlawful flight charge, said Michael Burk, U.S. attorney in Honolulu.

Burk would not discuss specific details but pointed out that federal kidnapping charges do not apply in parental kidnappings.

He confirmed, however, that the statute of limitations fell today and no further charges could be filed against anyone involved in taking the children, other than Pickus.

"I'm not interested in putting Brian in jail," Nastos said. "That won't get the children back. "The FBI tells me they're `on top of it.' The U.S. attorney says he's `investigating' it. But they've had five years. The only person who's been on top of it is me."

Nastos has badgered members of Congress, government officials and just about anybody she could corner long enough. Her mission has been to obtain charges against Phyllis Gottwalt, in the hope Gottwalt might be forced to reveal her son's whereabouts.

Gottwalt, who faces a civil lawsuit by Nastos and her daughter, has stated in a deposition she gave Frudakis $20,000 to get the children.

She could not be reached, but her attorney, David Nakashima, said he does not believe she knew the sort of group she was sending her grandchildren to when she aided in the kidnapping.

"This was a mother helping her son," he said.

"We don't know where Brian is. We know he was in Spain, but we haven't had contact with him for some time. She's sent numerous letters and they all come back unopened.

"I'd like to get those children back. My client would like to get them away from that group, but we just don't know where they are." Nastos and her daughter know that five years with the cult may have radically altered the boys emotionally.

"I know they've been told on a daily basis that I'm a daughter of Satan and they should hate me," said Candy. "I have nightmares about it.

"And I know there'll have to be some sort of rehabilitation, if I ever get them back. But they were responding to me when I had them for the short time that I did (in Honolulu). They knew that I loved them.

"That's all I hope for now and all that I pray for - that they'll remember the love I've had for them."